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Crime and punishment on the box : a contextual/discursive/semiotic analysis of SABC documentaries in the global era.

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The SABC has embraced a mandate that advocates the promotion of cultural diversity within the broader ambit of national identity. Although SABC3 consitutes the commercial wing of the station, it too is required to produce programmes in accordance with the spirit of this mandate. With tight budgets, pressure for audience ratings and an assortment of individual producers with individual production agendas, it may be naIve to presume that the SABC could consistently give priority to this mandate. Nonetheless, this is what it has undertaken. Considering this unifying and optimistic mandate, how then are frightening, troubling or disillusioning social phenomena depicted? The representation of one such phenomenon, crime, has been selected here for examination as it appears in Special Assignment and Expressions programmes. The way in which the SABC tackles essentially negative material and puts it in documentary form for national consumption sends out a message to South African viewers. The nature of this message - and its relation to the broadcaster's mandate - forms the basis for this dissertation. Each of nine selected documentaries is analysed using a mixture of semiotic, discursive and contextual principles. The programmes are examined in terms of four sections. The first is global trends and theories. Criminological, documentary and other theories that are global in scope have been adapted to powerfully, but subtly, underscore all of the documentaries, with implications for the representation of national identity. Secondly, a sociological examination of the way in which the local has been depicted (and whether it is given much attention at all) has implications for the fulfilment of the part of the mandate relating to cultural diversity. Thirdly and fourthly, the overall portrait of national identity in the documentaries is largely dependent on the combined representation of national culture - including values, symbols, rituals and beliefs - and the nation-state. Both of these should be construed in an optimistic light, taking into account, nonetheless, the critical watchdog function of the media. The evaluation remains strictly textual and preferred meaning is determined through theoretically supported analysis rather than via audience research. Issues such as global neoliberalism and its impact on the SABC and newsroom values are touched on and acknowledged, but ultimately, their effect on the fulfilment of the mandate is not examined in this dissertation. The central thrust of the dissertation in thus, strictly, the way in which the levels of the global, national and local, as they are represented in the documentaries, constitute interlocking factors, which impinge on the manner in which the SABC complies with its mandate. The findings of the dissertation were unsurprising in many respects. Overall, there appeared to be no consistent pattern to which documentaries were produced. The immediacies of production pressures and deadlines appear to outdo the broadcaster's mandate in terms of priority. Having said this, however, certain features do recur, such as the prevalence of sensationalism or, on the positive side, the humanising of criminals in a way that offers hope. Consequently, the study isolates approaches that foster national identity and those that do not, noting the frequency with which they occur and thereby implicitly offering a roadmap for future productions.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2005.


Documentary television programmes--South Africa., Violence on television--South Africa., Theses--Culture, communication and media studies.